Winner: Royal Caribbean
Over the past generation, you could argue that no holiday has changed as much as cruising.
In the past, the sector was dominated by Love Boat-style stereotypes of bloated buffets, older passengers and stilted dinner conversation. Either that, or they appeared to be full of passengers marinading in booze on the Med. Of course, you can still have those holidays. But we suggest you try what our readers describe as "a truly five-star experience" instead.
"Everything ran so smoothly," you said of Royal Caribbean, your choice as Ireland's Favourite Cruise Experience in our Reader Travel Awards 2020. "High-standard food, bars restaurants, entertainment - get the drinks package!"
Stepping on board one of this line's game-changing vessels, you can expect "a whole fantasy world within a ship", you told us.
Passengers can look forward to "five-star star luxury without feeling fussy", a "wide range" of ships, destinations and itineraries (this is the world's largest global cruise line, serving a scarcely believable 260 destinations in 72 countries). It's also a line that's "always evolving" and "always trying to be more innovative".
Our judges agreed. Sailing now for over 50 years, 2020 will see the debut of Odyssey of the Seas, a Quantum Ultra Class ship - its new gizmos include a "gravity-defying" virtual-reality experience in the top-deck Sky Pad. Last year saw the line roll out a transformation of CocoCay, its private island in the Bahamas, along with the tallest water slide in North America. The announcements just keep coming.
These are "amazing cruise ships" that create "great memories," readers said. "The staff are very friendly and welcoming and the wide selection of food is fab."
See royalcaribbean.com for more.
No, not bath-tub-sized ships. In 2020, we expect to see more passengers opt for short, two-to-five day trip durations as holiday trends change. 'Micro-travel', as it's increasingly termed, not only fits busy schedules better than traditional seven-plus day itineraries; it also allows first-timers a taste of cruising without a big-time commitment. Combined with a short flight (to Southampton or Barcelona, say), it could be the perfect excuse to give cruising a try...
2. Young blood
Forget stereotypes of the newly-wed, over-fed and nearly dead. Attitudes to cruise holidays are changing, according to research by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), which says Irish passenger numbers grew 20pc in 2019. "More than 66pc of Generation X and 71pc of millennials have a more positive attitude to cruising than two years ago," it adds.
3. Green shoots
It's the elephant in the room (or ocean). Modern cruise ships are amazing, sure - but they remain floating resorts carrying millions of guests every year, with all the fuel, energy and waste that entails. The industry can't change tack overnight, but there are positive signs. Hurtigruten Cruises has eliminated all single-use plastics, for example, while new ships by giant lines like Royal Caribbean and Celebrity are moving towards Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and advances in everything from LED lights to waste-water treatment. A good start - but it's up to passengers to push them even further.
4. Privacy in paradise
As cruise competition grows, so does the search for unique selling points. But when you've already got surf simulators, Broadway shows and rollercoasters at sea, what next? Why, private islands, of course. MSC Cruises is set to reveal a marine reserve, Ocean Cay, in the Bahamas this year, while Virgin's new cruise line, Virgin Voyages, will have a private beach club on Bimini. Royal Caribbean relaunched its CocoCay, complete with water park, last year in The Bahamas, and private beach clubs will soon follow in the Caribbean and South Pacific. The private ports are paradise for both customers and cruise lines, who reap all the destination spend.
5. Food streaming
Okay, not exactly 'streaming' (unless you count that self-serve ice cream). Where cruising was once dominated by dress codes and set meal times, today there's a shift towards 'on demand' and more casual eating. Think of the 'Pizza Anywhere' feature on Carnival's HUB app, or the "floating market of food-truck inspired, international vendors" that Virgin Voyages is promising. Expect to see better bar bites and more street food-style offerings in coming years.
Finalists: Celebrity Cruises, MSC, Norwegian, P&O Cruises